At age 6, Wol Akujang's parents sent him thousands of miles away to Ethiopia out of fear that their isolated village would be attacked during the Second Sudanese Civil War.
Akujang made the trek from Pap by foot with hundreds of others before being moved to the United Nations-supported Kakuma Refugee Camp, where he spent eight years. There, Akujang received his first instruction, lessons in English and Arabic, and fell instantly in love with formal learning.
Until then, Akujang intended to follow his family's legacy of farming, but "the war changed everything," said Akujang, who was eventually relocated to Phoenix, Ariz.
His childhood exemplifies the lives of hundreds of thousands of other young Sudanese – the "Lost Boys of Sudan" – supported by aid programs and resettled across the U.S. after being orphaned or displaced during the war.
Now, Akujang is preparing to return to his home country hoping for peace and progress with his newly minted University of Arizona degree in hand.
His decision is timely. South Sudan voters are expected to vote for independence as part of a Jan. 9 referendum.
"What happens after the referendum is very important," said Akujang, a pharmacy technician who earned a double major in biology with a minor in chemistry in May.
While he has desires to pursue graduate school and study medicine, Akujang is compelled to return to South Sudan to help improve two of the most in-demand structures: education and health care.
"There is a huge movement of people returning to South Sudan, and public health can have more of an impact," he said. "It will take individuals like myself to go back and really do something."
Akujang is registered to vote in the South Sudan referendum in Phoenix. He is bound for Phoenix on Jan. 8 and, on Jan. 11, will head for Kenya, then travel to Pap and Juba, the capital of South Sudan.
"I personally believe that people are very resilient, and that despite 50 years fighting, people are able to sustain a way of life and maintain what they believe," Akujang said.
But he hopes for more progress.
After graduating from high school in 2005 – the same year the peace agreement was signed between North and South Sudan – he went home for the first time since being displaced.
While his father had died from cholera, Akujang's mother, older brother and younger sister were well. He also has another brother, who he has been financially support through school in Kenya.
It was through UA mathematics professor Deborah Hughes Hallett that Akujang has been able to make connections in Africa where he is lining up a job with the Ministry of Health in Juba in an office that will evaluate the work of the organization and improve its service.
"He had a horrifying and hard start to his life and the more I talked with him, the more impressed I was with the work he did in the course and who he was," said Hughes Hallett, who splits her time between the UA and Harvard, where she is an adjunct professor of public policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
She also hosted Akujang in Massachusetts in September and October, introducing him to students and faculty members involved in international development, with nongovernmental organizations and some with connections in Africa.
"He knew the referendum was coming, and Wol began to realize what was possible," Hughes Hallett said, adding that Akujang grew more motivated by the idea that he could, indeed, return home and support his community.
"I am very impressed by his humane side and intellectual drive," Hughes Hallett said. "I admire his spirit."
By the time Akujang arrives in January, South Sudan could be "the world's newest country – and it will need help," Hughes Hallett said.
It is a pivotal moment for South Sudan, which likely will secede from North Sudan with voter approval. Today, the country needs people like Akujang, Hughes Hallett said.
"He is very enterprising. He is quiet and not pushy, but he does have a steely resolve," she said.
Akujang said his education in the U.S. in general and at the UA in particular has been a tremendous investment, one that he intends to use to help his people.
"I thought that if I could go to school I would be able to define who I was," he said.
"Education is the main thing because it showed the potential of what I could accomplish," Akujang added. "Because of the education the UA gave me, I have an understanding of the larger issues."
For Akujang, what motivates him are his family and childhood memories being raised among "very traditional," communal people leading "the normal life."
In Pap, "there were no written rules, but everyone knew what to do," he said, adding that, above all, priorities were in hard work and protecting the family name.
Akujang said it is up to people like him and supporters within the global community to ensure that the South Sudanese are able to retain their traditions, but while improving their infrastructures, particularly to ensure adequate health care and to improve access to education.
"We didn't know doctors, lawyers, engineers. I didn't know America until Kakuma," Akujang said. "But then I became aware of what we can achieve through school. It shifted my priorities."
And while the vast majority of the people in Pap receive no formal education, "they understand communities can co-exist," Akujang said. Given the possibility for political shifts at a time when people are returning to the country, he believes that co-existence with a northern state is possible, but with improved structures.
"It's not about me," said Akujang, who plans to eventually return to the U.S. "It's about a small community that has been through so much in the last 50 years that wants so much to peacefully co-exist."